April 5, 2013

Coral Gables elections get testy in final days of campaign

Ten candidates are running for three seats in the April 9 elections in the tony suburb: the mayor’s and two open commission seats.

A campaign flier implies the Coral Gables mayor is a big spender — and big drinker. Another candidate says he is preparing a lawsuit alleging his opponent filed improper campaign records. And in another race, a candidate suggests his opponent may not have lived in the City Beautiful long enough to run for office.

Such is the increasingly heated tone of the Coral Gables elections, featuring 10 candidates running for the mayor’s and two open commission seats. Voters will decide on Tuesday whether incumbent Mayor Jim Cason, elected to his first term two years ago, will be re-elected or unseated by longtime Commissioner Ralph Cabrera.

“There’s too much hatred in this election,” said Roxcy Bolton, 86, a civic leader who has lived in the Gables since the 1960s.

Bolton and others take issue with a flier portraying Cason as a big spender who has raised city fees. A photo on the back of the flier shows Cason with a grin holding what appears to be a bottle of red wine.

The ad, paid for by Citizen Action, Inc., a political action committee chaired by Keith Donner, Cabrera’s campaign consultant, altered an image that featured Cason, Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce President Mark Trowbridge and Michel Gourinchas, mayor of the Cognac region of France. The photo was taken in February during a ceremony in which Cason presented Gourinchas with the key to the city as the trio launched a partnership with The Alliance Francaise to promote cultural programs in the Gables. Gourinchas presented Cason with bottle No. 0001 in a 10,000-numbered edition called ‘Coral Gables.’ The series will be sold to raise money for Alliance Francaise.

Trowbridge and Gourinchas were cropped out of the flier, leaving Cason alone, clutching a bottle of booze.

Cason blew up the flier to poster size and displayed it on easels at Coral Gables Congregational Church last month during a mayor’s forum.

“They take it out for sleazy political reasons, that’s outrageous,” Cason complained.

Cabrera denied he had anything to do with the flier.

“It wasn’t my campaign,” he said. “My campaign consultant works for other people; I didn’t spend a dime on that project.”

Asked if he should pull the flier, Cabrera responded: “It wasn’t shown to me. I didn’t see the damned thing. It’s hard to say, ‘Should I have pulled it.’ I think it’s truthful — the ad — what it says.”

Said Cason, a retired U.S. diplomat and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana: “He’s a liar.”

The mayor’s race differs from the Group 2 and Group 3 races because there aren’t any incumbents to unseat. Cabrera and Maria Anderson, each elected in 2001, were term-limited.

“The reason I entered this race was because it was for an open seat and I knew I’d be running as ‘Marlin Ebbert’ and that’s all I had to do,” said Marlin Ebbert, who is competing against Ross Hancock and Vince Lago for Cabrera’s Group 2 seat.

Allegations of misconduct have been cropping up in these two races in the campaign’s final days.

Hancock alleges that Lago entered the race illegally because Lago has not lived in the home that he listed as his residence, 5200 San Amaro Dr., on his campaign documents.

Lago bought the home in 2011 for $405,000, property records show. He said he has been repairing mold and electrical problems that were discovered upon inspection. He, his wife and 11/2-year-old daughter have been living with his wife’s parents at their home on Alhambra Circle. Prior to their San Amaro purchase, the Lagos had been living in a condo on Edgewater Drive in Coral Gables.

“Why did he try to establish an address at a home that was vacant?” Hancock said in an e-mail.

Hancock said Friday he is finalizing a lawsuit contending that Lago improperly filed paperwork with the city clerk when he registered to run for office last March. A candidate has to live in the city a year before the election date and show proof of residency to qualify, which often includes submitting a utility bill. Lago provided his garbage collection bill from the city, listing his San Amaro address.

“For qualifying, Lago provided proof of residency for a house that has been demonstrably not his residence for a qualifying period. It is a vacant house,’’ Hancock said.

Lago says he is the owner of the house.

Hancock and others also have noted that Lago applied for the homestead exemption on the San Amaro property, even though he wasn’t living there. Lago said he intended to move into the home immediately but discovered the mold problem was deeper than realized, requiring more costly and lengthy repairs.

“I live three blocks away from my home, which is under construction. I said that in both debates,” Lago said. “I’m not going to do a negative campaign.”

The Miami-Dade County Office of the Property Appraiser would not discuss the matter on Friday, citing the upcoming election.

Lago, meanwhile, is frustrated by the campaign’s negative tone.

“We’re not concentrating on what’s important — pension reform, Streetscape, delivering a senior center, quality of life,’’ Lago said. “Put out your platform to residents, explain yourself, tell them what your vision for the city is, and let them decide.”

The negative tone has spilled over to the Group 3 race. Five people are running for the seat held by Anderson: Jackson Rip Holmes, Pat Keon, P.J. Mitchell, Norman “Tony’’ Newell and Mary Young.

Mitchell has contended that Newell may not have lived in the city for at least a year prior to the election, noting that he had registered to vote in Coral Gables in January, four months before the election.

Newell had been registered to vote in South Miami. He said he maintained that registration because he and his parents would go to the polls together and vote.

“When I was going to run I realized I had to register in the Gables — reluctantly — because my parents are getting up there in years and if I had it my way, I’d vote where I grew up. It was tradition, we took it seriously, something I like to do. They vote absentee now so that tradition went by the wayside,” Newell said.

Newell said he provided documentation to the city and the county showing he has resided in the Gables since 2008. The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust concluded that Newell had successfully proved he resided at the address listed on his qualifiying papers, an apartment on Merrick Way.

Despite the conflict between Mitchell and Newell, Keon said she feels the campaign for the Group 3 seat has been more collegial than the other races, particularly the mayor’s.

“The mayor’s race is combative,’’ she said. “We’ll see who that helps and who that hurts.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter .

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